Democracy And Elections Essays

"Elect" redirects here. For other uses, see -elect and Election (disambiguation).

"Free election" redirects here. For the "free elections" of Polish kings, see Royal elections in Poland.

An election is a formal group decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual to hold public office.[1] Elections have been the usual mechanism by which modern representative democracy has operated since the 17th century.[1] Elections may fill offices in the legislature, sometimes in the executive and judiciary, and for regional and local government. This process is also used in many other private and business organizations, from clubs to voluntary associations and corporations.[2]

The universal use of elections as a tool for selecting representatives in modern representative democracies is in contrast with the practice in the democratic archetype, ancient Athens, where the Elections were considered an oligarchic institution and most political offices were filled using sortition, also known as allotment, by which officeholders were chosen by lot.[3]

Electoral reform describes the process of introducing fair electoral systems where they are not in place, or improving the fairness or effectiveness of existing systems. Psephology is the study of results and other statistics relating to elections (especially with a view to predicting future results).

To elect means "to choose or make a decision", and so sometimes other forms of ballot such as referendums are referred to as elections, especially in the United States.

History[edit]

See also: History of democracy

Elections were used as early in history as ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and throughout the Medieval period to select rulers such as the Holy Roman Emperor (see imperial election) and the pope (see papal election).[1]

In Vedic period of India, the raja (chiefs) of a gana (a tribal organization) was apparently elected by the gana. The raja belonged to the noble Kshatriyavarna (warrior class), and was typically a son of the previous raja. However, the gana members had the final say in his elections.[4] Even during the Sangam Period people elected their representatives by casting their votes and the ballot boxes (Usually a pot) were tied by rope and sealed. After the election the votes were taken out and counted.[5] The Pala king Gopala (ruled c. 750s–770s CE) in early medieval Bengal was elected by a group of feudal chieftains. Such elections were quite common in contemporary societies of the region.[6][7] In Chola Empire, around 920 CE, in Uthiramerur (in present-day Tamil Nadu), palm leaves were used for selecting the village committee members. The leaves, with candidate names written on them, were put inside a mud pot. To select the committee members, a young boy was asked to take out as many leaves as the number of positions available. This was known as the Kudavolai system.[8][9]

The modern "election", which consists of public elections of government officials, didn't emerge until the beginning of the 17th century when the idea of representative government took hold in North America and Europe.[1]

Questions of suffrage, especially suffrage for minority groups, have dominated the history of elections. Males, the dominate cultural group in North America and Europe, often dominated the electorate and continue to do so in many countries.[1] Early elections in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States were dominated by landed or ruling class males.[1] However, by 1920 all Western European and North American democracies had universal adult male suffrage (except Switzerland) and many countries began to consider women's suffrage.[1] Despite legally mandated universal suffrage for adult males, political barriers were sometimes erected to prevent fair access to elections (See Civil Rights Movement).[1]

Characteristics[edit]

Suffrage[edit]

The question of who may vote is a central issue in elections. The electorate does not generally include the entire population; for example, many countries prohibit those who are under the age of majority from voting, all jurisdictions require a minimum age for voting.

In Australia Aboriginal people were not given the right to vote until 1962 (see 1967 referendum entry) and in 2010 the federal government removed the rights of prisoners to vote (a large proportion of which are Aboriginal Australians).

Suffrage is typically only for citizens of the country, though further limits may be imposed.

However, in the European Union, one can vote in municipal elections if one lives in the municipality and is an EU citizen; the nationality of the country of residence is not required.

In some countries, voting is required by law; if an eligible voter does not cast a vote, he or she may be subject to punitive measures such as a fine.[citation needed]

Nomination[edit]

A representative democracy requires a procedure to govern nomination for political office. In many cases, nomination for office is mediated through preselection processes in organized political parties.[10]

Non-partisan systems tend to differ from partisan systems as concerns nominations. In a direct democracy, one type of non-partisan democracy, any eligible person can be nominated. In some non-partisan representative. History of elections. Although elections were used in ancient Athens, in Rome, and in the selection of popes and Holy Roman emperors, the origins of elections in the contemporary world lie in the gradual emergence of representative government in Europe and North America beginning in the 17th century. systems no nominations (or campaigning, electioneering, etc.) take place at all, with voters free to choose any person at the time of voting—with some possible exceptions such as through a minimum age requirement—in the jurisdiction. In such cases, it is not required (or even possible) that the members of the electorate be familiar with all of the eligible persons, though such systems may involve indirect elections at larger geographic levels to ensure that some first-hand familiarity among potential electees can exist at these levels (i.e., among the elected delegates).

As far as partisan systems, in some countries, only members of a particular political party can be nominated. Or, any eligible person can be nominated through a petition; thus allowing him or her to be listed.

Electoral systems[edit]

Electoral systems are the detailed constitutional arrangements and voting systems that convert the vote into a political decision. The first step is to tally the votes, for which various vote counting systems and ballot types are used. Voting systems then determine the result on the basis of the tally. Most systems can be categorized as either proportional or majoritarian. Among the former are party-list proportional representation and additional member system. Among the latter are First Past the Post (FPP) (relative majority) and absolute majority. Many countries have growing electoral reform movements, which advocate systems such as approval voting, single transferable vote, instant runoff voting or a Condorcet method; these methods are also gaining popularity for lesser elections in some countries where more important elections still use more traditional counting methods.

While openness and accountability are usually considered cornerstones of a democratic system, the act of casting a vote and the content of a voter's ballot are usually an important exception. The secret ballot is a relatively modern development, but it is now considered crucial in most free and fair elections, as it limits the effectiveness of intimidation.

Scheduling[edit]

The nature of democracy is that elected officials are accountable to the people, and they must return to the voters at prescribed intervals to seek their mandate to continue in office. For that reason most democratic constitutions provide that elections are held at fixed regular intervals. In the United States, elections are held between every three and six years in most states, with exceptions such as the U.S. House of Representatives, which stands for election every two years. There is a variety of schedules, for example presidents: the President of Ireland is elected every seven years, the President of Russia and the President of Finland every six years, the President of France every five years, President of the United States every four years.

Pre-determined or fixed election dates have the advantage of fairness and predictability. However, they tend to greatly lengthen campaigns, and make dissolving the legislature (parliamentary system) more problematic if the date should happen to fall at time when dissolution is inconvenient (e.g. when war breaks out). Other states (e.g., the United Kingdom) only set maximum time in office, and the executive decides exactly when within that limit it will actually go to the polls. In practice, this means the government remains in power for close to its full term, and choose an election date it calculates to be in its best interests (unless something special happens, such as a motion of no-confidence). This calculation depends on a number of variables, such as its performance in opinion polls and the size of its majority.

Election campaigns[edit]

Main article: Political campaign

When elections are called, politicians and their supporters attempt to influence policy by competing directly for the votes of constituents in what are called campaigns. Supporters for a campaign can be either formally organized or loosely affiliated, and frequently utilize campaign advertising. It is common for political scientists to attempt to predict elections via Political Forecasting methods.

The most expensive election campaign included US$7 billion spent on the United States presidential election, 2012 and is followed by the US$5 billion spent on the Indian general election, 2014.[11]

Difficulties with elections[edit]

Main articles: Electoral fraud and Unfair election

In many countries with weak rule of law, the most common reason why elections do not meet international standards of being "free and fair" is interference from the incumbent government. Dictators may use the powers of the executive (police, martial law, censorship, physical implementation of the election mechanism, etc.) to remain in power despite popular opinion in favor of removal. Members of a particular faction in a legislature may use the power of the majority or supermajority (passing criminal laws, defining the electoral mechanisms including eligibility and district boundaries) to prevent the balance of power in the body from shifting to a rival faction due to an election.

Non-governmental entities can also interfere with elections, through physical force, verbal intimidation, or fraud, which can result in improper casting or counting of votes. Monitoring for and minimizing electoral fraud is also an ongoing task in countries with strong traditions of free and fair elections. Problems that prevent an election from being "free and fair" take various forms:[12]

Lack of open political debate or an informed electorate[edit]

The electorate may be poorly informed about issues or candidates due to lack of freedom of the press, lack of objectivity in the press due to state or corporate control, and/or lack of access to news and political media. Freedom of speech may be curtailed by the state, favoring certain viewpoints or state propaganda.

Unfair rules[edit]

Gerrymandering, exclusion of opposition candidates from eligibility for office, needlessly high restrictions on who may be a candidate, like ballot access rules, and manipulating thresholds for electoral success are some of the ways the structure of an election can be changed to favor a specific faction or candidate.

Interference with campaigns[edit]

Those in power may arrest or assassinate candidates, suppress or even criminalize campaigning, close campaign headquarters, harass or beat campaign workers, or intimidate voters with violence. Foreign electoral intervention can also occur.

Tampering with the election mechanism[edit]

This can include confusing or misleading voters about how to vote, violation of the secret ballot, ballot stuffing, tampering with voting machines, destruction of legitimately cast ballots, voter suppression, voter registration fraud, failure to validate voter residency, fraudulent tabulation of results, and use of physical force or verbal intimation at polling places.

Other examples include persuading candidates into not standing against them, such as through blackmailing, bribery, intimidation or physical violence. History of elections. Although elections were used in ancient Athens, in Rome, and in the selection of popes and Holy Roman emperors, the origins of elections in the contemporary world lie in the gradual emergence of representative government in Europe and North America beginning in the 17th century.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Arrow, Kenneth J. 1963. Social Choice and Individual Values. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Benoit, Jean-Pierre and Lewis A. Kornhauser. 1994. "Social Choice in a Representative Democracy." American Political Science Review 88.1: 185–192.
  • Corrado Maria, Daclon. 2004. US elections and war on terrorism – Interview with professor Massimo Teodori Analisi Difesa, n. 50
  • Farquharson, Robin. 1969. A Theory of Voting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Mueller, Dennis C. 1996. Constitutional Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Owen, Bernard, 2002. "Le système électoral et son effet sur la représentation parlementaire des partis: le cas européen.", LGDJ;
  • Riker, William. 1980. Liberalism Against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  • Thompson, Dennis F. 2004. Just Elections: Creating a Fair Electoral Process in the U.S. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226797649
  • Ware, Alan. 1987. Citizens, Parties and the State. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

External links[edit]

Look up election in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Election
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Elections.
A British election ballot paper, 1880
Campaigners working on posters in Milan, Italy, 2004
Voting in action in Australia; voters fill out their ballot papers in individual booths, with completed votes cast in the ballot box at left
The Presidential Election in Argentina, the Polling-Station at the Church of La Merced, Buenos Ayres. "The rival voters were kept back by an armed force of police out of sight of each other, only batches of two ar three being allowed to enter the polling-office ata time. Armed sentries guarded the gates and the door leading to the office, and were also posted on the roofs of the adjoining houses and in the belfry and tower of the church." (G. Durand, The Graphic, 21 May1892).
  1. ^ abcdefgh"Election (political science)," Encyclopedia Britanica Online. Retrieved 18 August 2009
  2. ^Robert, Henry M.; et al. (2011). Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press. pp. 438–446. ISBN 978-0-306-82020-5. 
  3. ^Headlam, James Wycliffe (1891). Election by Lot at Athens. p. 12.
  4. ^Eric W. Robinson (1997). The First Democracies: Early Popular Government Outside Athens. Franz Steiner Verlag. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-3-515-06951-9. 
  5. ^Agananooru. Chennai: Saiva Siddantha Noor pathippu Kazhagam. 1968. pp. 183–186. 
  6. ^Nitish K. Sengupta (1 January 2011). "The Imperial Palas". Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from the Mahabharata to Mujib. Penguin Books India. pp. 39–49. ISBN 978-0-14-341678-4. 
  7. ^Biplab Dasgupta (1 January 2005). European Trade and Colonial Conquest. Anthem Press. pp. 341–. ISBN 978-1-84331-029-7. 
  8. ^VK Agnihotri, ed. (2010). Indian History (26th ed.). Allied. pp. B–62–B–65. ISBN 978-81-8424-568-4. 
  9. ^"Pre-Independence Method of Election". Tamil Nadu State Election Commission, India. Retrieved 3 November 2011. 
  10. ^Reuven Hazan, 'Candidate Selection', in Lawrence LeDuc, Richard Niemi and Pippa Norris (eds), Comparing Democracies 2, Sage Publications, London, 2002
  11. ^"India's spend on elections could challenge US record: report". NDTV.com. Retrieved 2016-02-25. 
  12. ^"Free and Fair Elections". Public Sphere Project. 2008. Retrieved 8 November 2015. 

Brexit is a turning point in the history of western democracy. Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.

But this is just the latest in a series of worrying blows to the health of democracy. On the surface, everything still seems fine. A few years ago, the World Values Survey, a large-scale international research project, asked more than 73,000 people in 57 countries if they believed democracy was a good way to govern a country – and nearly 92% said yes. But that same survey found that in the past 10 years, around the world, there has been a considerable increase in calls for a strong leader “who does not have to bother with parliament and elections” – and that trust in governments and political parties has reached a historical low. It would appear that people like the idea of democracy but loathe the reality.

Trust in the institutions of democracy is also visibly declining. In the past five years, the European Union’s official research bureau found that less than 30% of Europeans had faith in their national parliaments and governments – some of the lowest figures in years, and an indication that almost three-quarters of people distrust their countries’ most important political institutions. Everywhere in the west, political parties – the key players in our democracies – are among the least trusted institutions in society. Although a certain scepticism is an essential component of citizenship in a free society, we are justified in asking how widespread this distrust might be and at what point healthy scepticism tips over into outright aversion.

There is something explosive about an era in which interest in politics grows while faith in politics declines. What does it mean for the stability of a country if more and more people warily keep track of the activities of an authority that they increasingly distrust? How much derision can a system endure, especially now that everyone can share their deeply felt opinions online?

Fifty years ago, we lived in a world of greater political apathy and yet greater trust in politics. Now there is both passion and distrust. These are turbulent times, as the events of the past week demonstrate all too clearly. And yet, for all this turbulence, there has been little reflection on the tools that our democracies use. It is still a heresy to ask whether elections, in their current form, are a badly outmoded technology for converting the collective will of the people into governments and policies.

We discuss and debate the outcome of a referendum without discussing its principles. This should be surprising. In a referendum, we ask people directly what they think when they have not been obliged to think – although they have certainly been bombarded by every conceivable form of manipulation in the months leading up to the vote. But the problem is not confined to referendums: in an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years. This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today. Even in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already observed that elections alone were no guarantee of liberty: “The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.”

Referendums and elections are both arcane instruments of public deliberation. If we refuse to update our democratic technology, we may find the system is beyond repair; 2016 already risks becoming the worst year for democracy since 1933. We may find, even after the folly of Brexit, that Donald Trump wins the American presidency later this year. But this may have less to do with Trump himself, or the oddities of the American political system, than with a dangerous road that all western democracies have taken: reducing democracy to voting.


Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?

By refusing to change procedures, we have made political turmoil and instability defining features of western democracy. Last weekend Spain had to hold its second general election in six months, after the first run did not deliver a government. A few weeks ago, Austria almost elected its first extreme rightwing president, while a Dutch referendum in April voted down a trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU. My country, Belgium, became the laughing stock of Europe a few years earlier, when it failed to form a government for 541 days. But nobody is laughing now that it seems that many western democracies are in the process of turning “Belgian”.

Countless western societies are currently afflicted by what we might call “democratic fatigue syndrome”. Symptoms may include referendum fever, declining party membership, and low voter turnout. Or government impotence and political paralysis – under relentless media scrutiny, widespread public distrust, and populist upheavals.

But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties – it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem. Where is the reasoned voice of the people in all this? Where do citizens get the chance to obtain the best possible information, engage with each other and decide collectively upon their future? Where do citizens get a chance to shape the fate of their communities? Not in the voting booth, for sure.

The words “election” and “democracy” have become synonymous. We have convinced ourselves that the only way to choose a representative is through the ballot box. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states as much: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

The words “this will shall be expressed” are typical of our way of thinking about democracy: when we say “democracy”, we only mean “elections”. But isn’t it remarkable that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains such a precise definition of how the will of the people must be expressed? Why should such a concise text about basic rights, which is fewer than 2,000 words long, pay particular attention to the practical execution of one of these rights? It is as if the people who compiled the declaration back in 1948 had come to see the specific method as a basic right, as if the procedure was in itself sacred.

It would appear that the fundamental cause of democratic fatigue syndrome lies in the fact that we have all become electoral fundamentalists, venerating elections but despising the people who are elected.

Electoral fundamentalism is an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections and elections are a necessary and fundamental precondition when speaking of democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to regard elections as a means of taking part in democracy, seeing them instead as an end in themselves, as a doctrine with an intrinsic, inalienable value.

This blind faith in the ballot box as the ultimate base on which popular sovereignty rests can be seen most vividly of all in international diplomacy. When western donor countries hope that countries ravaged by conflict – such as Congo, Iraq or Afghanistan – will become democracies, what they really mean is this: they must hold elections, preferably on the western model, with voting booths, ballot papers and ballot boxes; with parties, campaigns and coalitions; with lists of candidates, polling stations and sealing wax, just like we do. And then they will receive money from us.

Local democratic and proto-democratic institutions (village meetings, traditional conflict mediation or ancient jurisprudence) stand no chance. These things may have their value in encouraging a peaceful and collective discussion, but the money will be shut off unless our own tried-and-tested recipe is adhered to.

If you look at the recommendations of western donors, it is as if democracy is a kind of export product, off the peg, in handy packaging, ready for dispatch. “Free and fair elections” become an Ikea kit for democracy – to be assembled by the recipient, with or without the help of the instructions enclosed. And if the resulting piece of furniture is lopsided, uncomfortable to sit on or falls apart? Then it’s the fault of the customer.

That elections can have all kinds of outcomes in states that are fragile, including violence, ethnic tensions, criminality and corruption, seems of secondary importance. That elections do not automatically foster democracy, but may instead prevent or destroy it, is conveniently forgotten. We insist that in every country in the world people must traipse off to the polling stations. Our electoral fundamentalism really does take the form of a new, global evangelism. Elections are the sacraments of that new faith, a ritual regarded as a vital necessity in which the form is more important than the content.

This single-minded focus on elections is actually rather odd. During the past 3,000 years, people have been experimenting with democracy and only in the last 200 have they practised it exclusively by holding elections. Yet we regard elections as the only valid method. Why? Force of habit is at play here, of course, but there is a more simple cause, based on the fact that elections have worked pretty well over the past two centuries. Despite a number of notoriously bad outcomes, they have very often made democracy possible.

Elections are the fossil fuel of politics. Once they gave democracy a huge boost, now they cause colossal problems

However, elections originated in a completely different context from the one that they function in today. When the supporters of the American and French revolutions proposed elections as a way of learning “the will of the people”, there were no political parties, no laws regarding universal franchise, no commercial mass media, and no internet. The forerunners of our representative democracy had no idea that any of these things would come into existence.

Elections are the fossil fuel of politics. Whereas once they gave democracy a huge boost, much as oil did for our economies, it now turns out they cause colossal problems of their own. If we don’t urgently reconsider the nature of our democratic fuel, a systemic crisis awaits. If we obstinately hold on to a notion of democracy that reduces its meaning to voting in elections and referendums, at a time of economic malaise, we will undermine the democratic process.


In the years after the second world war, western democracies were dominated by large mass parties, and they held the structures of the state in their hands. Through a network of intermediary organisations, such as unions, corporations and party media, they succeeded in being close to the lives of individual citizens. This resulted in an extremely stable system, with great party loyalty and predictable voting behaviour.

This changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when discourse was increasingly shaped by the free market.Party newspapers disappeared or were bought up by media concerns, commercial broadcasters entered the field and even public broadcasters increasingly adopted market thinking. Viewing, reading and listening figures became hugely important – they were the daily share price index of public opinion. Commercial mass media emerged as the most important builders of social consensus, and organised civil society lost ground. The consequences were predictable, as citizens became consumers and elections hazardous.

Parties began to see themselves less as intermediaries between people and power, and instead settled into the fringes of the state apparatus. To retain their places there, they had to turn to the voter every few years to top up their legitimacy. Elections became a battle fought out in the media for the favour of voters. The passions aroused among the populace diverted attention from a far more fundamental emotion, an increasing irritation with anything and everything pertaining to politics.

In 2004, the British sociologist Colin Crouch came up with the term “post-democracy” to describe this new order:

Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent part, responding only to the signals given them.

The Italy of Silvio Berlusconi came closest to fitting this definition of the post-democratic state but elsewhere too we have seen processes that tend in that direction. Since the end of the 20th century, citizens have started looking like their 19th-century predecessors. Because civil society has become weaker, a gulf has opened up again between the state and the individual.

After the rise of the political parties, the introduction of universal suffrage, the rise and fall of organised civil society and the dominance of commercial media, another factor has now been added: social media.

At the beginning of the 21st century, citizens could follow the political theatre, minute by minute, on radio, television or the internet, but today they can respond to it from second to second and mobilise others. The culture of immediate reporting now has instant feedback, resulting in even more of a cacophony. The work of the public figure, and especially the elected politician, is not made easier by any of this. He or she can immediately see whether new proposals appeal to the citizen, and indeed just how many people the citizen can whip up. New technology gives people a voice, but the nature of this new political involvement makes the electoral system creak at the joints all the more.

Commercial and social media also reinforce one another – picking up each other’s news and bouncing it back to create an atmosphere of perpetual mudslinging. Tough competition, loss of advertising revenue and falling sales prompt the media to produce increasingly vehement reports about increasingly exaggerated conflicts. For radio and television, national politics has become a daily soap opera, and while editors determine to some extent the framing, the script and the typecasting, politicians, with varying degrees of success, try to slant things this way or that. The most popular politicians are those who succeed in altering the script and reframing the debate – in other words, those who can bend the media to their will.

This collective hysteria has made election fever permanent and has serious consequences for the workings of democracy. Efficiency suffers under the electoral calculus, legitimacy under the continual need to distinguish oneself, while time and again, the electoral system ensures that the long term and the common interest lose out to the short term and party interests. Elections were once invented to make democracy possible, but in these circumstances they seem to be a hindrance.

Since we have reduced democracy to selecting representatives, and reduced representative democracy to mean simply voting, a valuable system is now mired in deep difficulties. Winning the next election has become more important than fulfilling the promises made in the last. Making the best of the system we have is becoming increasingly difficult.


What kind of democracy is appropriate to an era of fast, decentralised communication? How should the government deal with all those articulate citizens who stand shouting from the sidelines?

For the media, politics is now a soap opera. The most popular politicians are those who succeed in altering the script

Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

People care deeply about their communities and want to be heard. But a much better way to let the people speak than through a referendum is to return to the central principle of Athenian democracy: drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called. In ancient Athens, the large majority of public functions were assigned by lot. Renaissance states such as Venice and Florence worked on the same basis and experienced centuries of political stability. With sortition, you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

Experiments with sortition have been successfully applied in the US, Australia, and the Netherlands. The most innovative country so far is certainly Ireland. In December 2012, a constitutional convention began work in order to revise several articles of the constitution of Ireland. Its members were not just a committee of MPs working behind closed doors, but a mixture of elected politicians and ordinary people: 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, from both Ireland and Northern Ireland. This group met one weekend per month for more than a year.

An independent research bureau put together the random group of 66 citizens, taking account of age, sex and place of birth. The diversity this produced was helpful when it came to discussing such subjects as same-sex marriage, the rights of women or the ban on blasphemy in the current constitution. However, they did not do all this alone: participants listened to experts and received input from other citizens (more than a thousand contributions came in on the subject of gay marriage). The decisions made by the convention did not have the force of law; the recommendations first had to be passed by the two chambers of the Irish parliament, then by the government and then in a referendum.

By talking to a diverse cross-section of Irish society, politicians could get further than they could have by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens could give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum.

What if this procedure had been applied in the UK last week? What if a random sample of citizens had a chance to learn from experts, listen to proposals, talk to each other and engage with politicians? What if a mixed group of elected and drafted citizens had thought the matter through? What if the rest of society could have had a chance to follow and contribute to their deliberations? What if the proposal this group would have come up with had been subjected to public scrutiny? Do we think a similarly reckless decision would have been taken?

Sortition could provide a remedy to the democratic fatigue syndrome that we see everywhere today. The drawing of lots is not a miracle cure any more than elections ever were, but it can help correct a number of the faults in the current system. The risk of corruption is reduced, election fever abates and attention to the common good increases. Voting on the basis of gut feeling is replaced by sensible deliberation, as those who have been drafted are exposed to expert opinion, objective information and public debate. Citizens chosen by lot may not have the expertise of professional politicians, but they add something vital to the process: freedom. After all, they don’t need to be elected or re-elected.

Juries for criminal trials that are chosen by lot prove that people generally take their task extremely seriously. The fear of a chamber that behaves recklessly or irresponsibly is unfounded. If we agree that 12 people can decide in good faith about the freedom or imprisonment of a fellow citizen, then we can be confident that a number of them can and will serve the interests of the community in a responsible manner.

If many countries rely on the principle of sortition in the criminal justice system, why not rely on it in the legislative system? We already use a lottery like this every day, but we use it in the worst possible form: public opinion polling. As the American political scientist James Fishkin famously remarked: “In a poll, we ask people what they think when they don’t think. It would be more interesting to ask what they think after they had a chance to think.”


Democracy is not, by definition, government by the best, elected or not. It flourishes precisely by allowing a diversity of voices to be heard. It is all about having an equal say, an equal right to determine what political action is taken.

In order to keep democracy alive, we will have to learn that democracy cannot be reduced to voting alone. Elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. Structured deliberation with a random sample of citizens promises to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy. In Utrecht, the fourth city of the Netherlands, the city council now drafts by lot 150 citizens to co-create its sustainable energy plan. These processes may become a permanent feature of any modern democracy.

The most common argument against sortition is the supposed incompetence of the those who have not been elected. A body of elected representatives undoubtedly has more technical competencies than a body chosen by lot. But what is the use of a parliament full of highly educated lawyers if few of them know the price of bread?

Besides, the elected do not know everything. They need staff and researchers to fill the gaps in their expertise. In much the same way, a representative body chosen by lot would not stand alone. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens. Legislation could arise from the interaction between it and an elected chamber.

The arguments put forward against sortition are often identical to the reasons once put forward for not allowing peasants, workers or women to vote. Then, too, opponents claimed it would mark the end of democracy. Do we think Brexit might still have been possible if citizens had been truly invited to express their grievances and search for solutions together with those they had voted for?

If David Cameron had opted for the genuine participation of citizens, he would have obtained a much clearer view of what people really wanted, a powerful list of shared priorities,an agenda for further negotiations, and created much less distrust between the masses and the ruling class. On top of that, he would have gained global admiration for daring to tackle a complex challenge by an innovative process that values people’s voices instead of counting their votes. He could have set a new standard for democracy, rather than serving as its gravedigger.

This is an edited extract from Against Elections: The Case for Democracy (The Bodley Head, 2016, translated by Liz Waters)

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